Book Review: Understanding Sexual Misconduct By Clergy – A Handbook for Ministers.

John Allan Loftus S.J. ISBN: 1-56929-024-5. The Pastoral Press, Washington. USA. 1995. 64 pages.

Accusations of sexual misconduct against clergy have become commonplace. The author is described as having spent many years working with clergy accused of professional sexual misconduct.

My first reaction to this book is that it is very frightening. The title raises the first concern. This is not a book about paedophiles or other obvious sex­ual aberrations. It is about ‘misconduct’. This is a highly charged, emotional, legal and moral domain, it is full of ambiguity and ‘grey areas’. What you think of as ‘normal behaviour’ may be perceived as misconduct and a pro­secutable offence by another. In the US such prosecutions are not being thrown out of court.

The level of paranoia this book alludes to means that language now needs to be filtered so that it cannot be misconstrued or leave any room for doubt about your intention. While this small book is directed primarily at clergy, it claims to be equally valid for other professionals like teachers or counsellors. That glib remark in the class-room may come back to haunt you, according to the author. He maintains ‘times have changed irrevocably’ and there are no mitigating circumstances – if you step over the line – you cannot plead ignorance or that ‘it was just a bit of fun’.

We may not have reached the same level of paranoia here in Ireland yet but this book lets us know that this level has been reached in America. And, if in America, how long before Dublin or Cork etc.

What constitutes sexual misconduct? The author quotes a lengthy defini­tion on page 14 but it can be boiled down to this – If someone thinks you are stepping outside a boundary – whether you know it or not – then you are in danger of being accused of sexual misconduct. Don’t be too quick to dismiss this. The definition is becoming so broad in the US (according to the author), that any romantic or erotic thoughts, feelings, gestures etc., that are overt or covert, may be construed as misconduct. What is a covert romantic feeling?

What is the difference between a therapeutic hug and a non- therapeutic hug. What kind of classroom ‘one-liner’ will give offence?

This book makes it clear that the obvious and culpable sexual offenses of clergy are only part of the issue. Most misconduct takes place with adults. Because of the inherent inequity of the relationship between the priest and parishioner or priest and student, clear boundaries need to be drawn up to protect both.

The author makes a very strong case that church leaders need to take seri­ously the fact that to date there really has been no attention given to the need for prospective ministers to develop an awareness of their own sexuality and its power. This is especially true in the Roman church since its clergy are expected to be celibate. One-day seminars or an occasional work-shop for clergy (as ongoing education), is not a serious response to the changing reali­ty of the 90’s.

Professionals like clergy or teachers or counsellors are powerful people because of their roles. It is precisely the role that can allow exploitation whether it is conscious or not.

There are many thoughts expressed in these few short pages. Just because this book is nominally directed at clergy do not feel too safe. What is expressed here can apply to any professional who works directly with people. Chillingly, the author reminds you that ‘the benefit of the doubt will not be yours in today’s climate.'(p18) Even the appearance of impropriety must be avoided!

The word paranoia springs to mind regularly while reading this book, how­ever, if what is written truly reflects the current situation in the United States it is deeply troubling.

Margaret T. Carey